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This item is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.

Letters from Antony Easthorpe and Anthony Mellors, Michael Grant, Mark Jacobs, Harry Kemp, Douglas Oliver
The Priority of the Reified Theorist


We found Michael Grant's 'Realism and the Defence of Consciousness: on the work of Raymond Tallis' (PNR Review 94) entirely unconvincing though it raised general issues of contemporary importance. Against it we would argue:

1. Grant defends 'presence'as 'underived and underivable' ('lived through, inner experience', autonomous individuality a Coleridgean'I am') on the basis of a familiar (and untenable) either/or opposing consciousness (intention, meaning) to some nonasignifying other (the symbol). His underwriting of that binary is most easily seen in the universalising qualifications used to describe the position of 'post-structuralism and semiotics': a wish 'to dissolve the self entirely into a social system or institution such as language', so that the identity of the subject is 'wholly fictitious or imaginary' (our italics).

In denying the primacy and centrality of consciousness as a supposed point of origin post-structuralism (for want of a better term) does not lapse into a binary which would deny consciousness altogether. Lacan does not affirm that the subject is 'wholly fictitious' but rather that the ego is an effect, both constructed and necessary to human subjectivity Of the three categories or orders he theorises - Real, Symbolic, Imaginary - this latter, the Imaginary constitutes the domain of the ego, inextricably intertwined with the other two. Jacques Derrida, in his account of the structuring of 'writing' as repetition and reiteration, does not dissolve or eradicate intention. Rather he asserts that 'the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from this place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene' ('Signature Event Context'). We would interpret both these positions not as a denial of presence but as suspension of presence (insofar as one may equate 'meaning', 'intention', 'consciousness' with presence). The human subject is there but not in the form of an ever-pulsating mind that rules from the centre of the ultraworld.
There is, says Heidegger, 'no worldless subject' The 'lived-through, inner experience of making knowledge one's own' Grant appeals to, far from being 'an enduring possession of thought and culture', is inseparable from a historical effect, post-Renaissance culture and institutions (that notion of learning would have made no sense to Aristotle or Aquinas). That to experience the world, as Grant claims, is 'to experience it in its absolute identity' seems to us impossible for a speaking subject. We might first adduce Richard Gregory's well-known views (from Eye and Brain: the Psychology oj Seeing) to the effect that seeing an object 'generally involves knowledge of the object derived from previous experience', experience, which, far from being absolute, in order to count as 'previous' has to be remembered, repeated; and in order to be known must be borne in some form of signal, sign, symbol. When Grant approves of the view that presence is 'the underived, and underivable, condition of individual relations', how does he think we have access to another's consciousness? Directly and without derivation or mediation of any kind? Would Grant and Tallis have us believe in telepathy?

2. The intention of Grant's essay is to refute post-structuralism by arguing through issues around consciousness and subjectivity. As instance that 'writing' (understood in the wider sense Derrida attributes to it) always exceeds any intention it aims to foreclose, we would propose an interpretation of his text going beyond anything it could be said to 'intend: We are struck by its context, that it appears in the pages of PNR, a journal generally devoted to poetry rather than psychology and philosophic questions. Surely then we must interpret it in terms of the rearguard action PNR has been fighting for donkey's years against the supposed hegemony of foreign 'theory', post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, semiotics'? The Grant/Tallis defence of the primacy of presence, the (absolute?) freedom of consciousness and 'the individual', has to be read as support for a Coleridgean notion of 'imagination' and the Romantic tradition of poetry which follows from that, which PNR hopes to nurture. Why else was it published?

3. Like most literary journals in this country PNR promotes the High Church of English poetry exemplified by work staunchly opposed to Modernist innovation and alternative poetic projects: the poetry of Larkin, Sisson, Hill and Hughes. Such writing is supported by the view that the only real poetry comes from the authority of the private, lyrical voice, poetry therefore fixed in the 'identity' of the Romantic imagination and empirical self. Unlike other mainstream journals, 'however, PNR does make some space for commentary on the British Modernist tradition, seen most recently in James Keery's articles on new critical writing and the Cambridge Poetry Conferences. But like Grant, and like Donald Davie (who recognises Modernist poets such as J.H. Prynne and Douglas Oliver but recuperates them into an 'English' tradition derived from Hardy), Keery represents the same romantic-empiricist agenda as the mainstream poets. Grant himself has long been associated with the so-called 'Cambridge School' of Modernist poetry but his pronouncements, both in this article in PNR and recent essays on the poet Anthony Barnett, would nullify all the reasons why Modernists define themselves against the likes of Larkin.

Although what we are calling Modernism here is in reality a diverse grouping of poetic movements, it has been concerned, in one way or another, with disestablishing the Romantic lyric ego and its reductive projections onto a generalised 'we'. This is done in order to avoid what George Oppen called 'the shipwreck/Of the singular', so that the poet can once again use the I without irony and without attendant mystifications of 'presence'.

We would assert that with a challenge to the priority of the reified self in its beak the owl of post-structuralist theory flies in the twilight of early twentieth-century Modernist practice, including poetic practice. Grant's denigration of post-structuralism, on the other hand, flies in the face of the most innovative aspects of the new British poetry.


Michael Grant replies:

It is true that Lacan does not describe the subject itself as 'wholly fictitious and imaginary: However, in his discussion of the ego, the subject's identity which derives from the mirror phase, he speaks of the ego as being captured by an imago, a mirage. Similarly, writing of identification, the Ideal-I, also a product of the mirror phase, he states that 'this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual …' Stephen Heath even goes so far as to describe the imaginary itself as a fiction: 'the imaginary is a specific fiction of the subject in the symbolic.' He also considers the identification of the subject as a unity to be a fiction of the sign. There is, in Lacanian thought, a radical opposition between the ego (a function of the imaginary) and the split subject (a function or after-effect of the symbolic.) (I point this out in my article, though Easthope and Mellors appear not to have noticed the fact). Whereas the subject in the symbolic is always elsewhere, always other, the ego, the identity of the subject in the imaginary derives from an image of wholeness established in the mirror phase, and of which it is itself the image. The ego is thus an image of an image. The ego's next identification, an image of an image of an image, is therefore the first in an infinite regress.

The fact that this means nothing becomes clear from the gloss Easthope himself gives to the matter in Poetry as Discourse: 'identity is never simply itself ("its me") but is always only a likeness, a reflection of something else. So I never recognize myself but only misrecognize myself (his italics). If recognition is always misrecognition, what criteria would serve to differentiate between misrecognition and recognition? How am I to establish the identity of this 'something else'of which my identity is a likeness or reflection? Or again, we might ask, how is Easthope able to confirm the truth of Lacan's theory? The notion of misrecognition only makes sense against a background of recognition, just as the notion of lying only makes sense against a background of truth. Raymond Tallis has argued that Lacan cannot hope to produce a coherent account of how we come to recognize wholeness and identity on the basis of a theory that must inevitably presuppose the very identity it is seeking to establish. To say that the identity of the subject emerges from Lacan's account as wholly fictional would seem, in the circumstances, an act of charity.

Similar thoughts are prompted by Easthope and Mellors's comments on 'presence.' In speaking of presence as underived and underivable I gave an explanation of what Tallis meant by this. As he puts it, minds are embedded in the actual, the here and now.'We do not derive our consciousness of the things in the world by means of an increasingly precise series of exclusions that 'cone down' from generalities onto the particular. Consciousness is presupposed in our dealings with others as persons: it is manifest in our speech with them, in our understanding of them, in our loves and hatreds, in our feelings, gestures and emotions. Our consciousness of the world is manifest in our being at home in it, in our familiarity with words, with things and with people. It is also manifest in the complexities of our estrangements and difficulties. None of this is derived from some conceptual schema. These remarks are grammatical, not metaphysical, and certainly not theoretical.

In Lacan's defence one might argue that language as he employs it is not intended to work in the way ordinary language does. Following in a direction pointed to by Mallarmé, Lacan aims to transform language through a syntax of self-reflexive negativity and in so doing move it beyond itself into a realm of otherness outside concept and common intelligibility. His purpose is to create a language of ex-sis-tence, that is, a language of the unconscious, of the Other. To assume, as Easthope and Mellors do, that his concepts are unitary and capable of an unproblematic transfer from one sphere of operation to another is fundamentally to traduce him. It is genuinely to misrecognize him (that is, to misunderstand him) and to deprive his thought (which, whether Easthope and Mellors like it or not, is essentially post-Romantic) of its radical and subversive potency.

Easthope and Mellors seek to imply that they are of international and cosmopolitan sympathies, while I and, it would seem, the editor of PN Review, are xenophobic islanders, 'fighting a rearguard action against the hegemony of "foreign" theory' This is particularly hypocritical on Easthope's part, whose recent collection of theoretical matter, Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory includes contributors from Britain, Ireland and the USA only. As for my own writing, Easthope and Mellors know perfectly well that the articles I have published on the work of Anthony Barnett make extensive use of such un-English figures as Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Any implication of xenophobia in relation to Michael Schmidt's publishing policy is simply contemptible.

Their contention that my denigration of post-stucturalism flies in the face of the most innovative aspects of the new British poetry is, I think, one of the better jokes of the new year, and I congratulate them on it. What is less pleasing, however, is their clownish arrogance towards their betters. Does Professor Easthope seriously think that Donald Davie's understanding of modernism is inferior to his own? Does he think that Davie's accounts of Pound or Eliot or Hardy or Yeats have been such as to obscure the significance of modernism for serious readers of poetry in this country? As for Larkin's poetry (which has not appeared, to my knowledge, in PN Review), there is a case to be made for its being a subtle and complex extension of the kind of innovation set into motion by Mallarmé and continued by Eliot: Larkin might well be read as a post-symbolist poet, whose writing is to be illuminated by comparison with the procedures of, amongst others, Lacan. The notion of a High Church of poetry is droll, as is the notion of a private voice: perhaps the private voice intones in a private language anathemas upon modernist innovation and alternative poetic projects. Why is the tradition derived from Hardy 'English' rather than English? Come to that, why is semiotics 'semiotics'? Should not psychoanalysis be 'psychoanalysis'? Finally I deduce from their overblown style that our two friends fancy themselves as poets: on the showing of this letter, they are more successful in that direction than they are as critics.

Absent Friends


One applauds Jan Montefiore's attempt (PN Review 95) to redress the balance between the 'thirties poets who were women and that apparently loose but, in fact, tightly-knit federation of male poets now under the banner of 'the Auden generation', a brotherhood sustained by its surviving members and its fraternal heirs, of equal rough-and-ready male hew.' To remind readers there are alternatives to this is no bad thing.

Alas, though, Jan Montefiore cavalierly disregards the one poet, Laura Riding, who could make her case for her if she pursued the matter, and does her an ungracious disservice at the same time. For one thing, Laura Riding didn't wish herself to be thought of or called a 'woman poet', as your reviewer complains, not because she discounted herself or any other woman as not entitled to the title of poet, but because she held poetry and therefore the poet as sacredly above the claim of gender, free from special pleading from either side, male or female. To categorise poets as 'men poets' and 'women poets' sets up a contest between them in which women must, in a male world, perforce fail the test. The poet, Laura Riding said, speaks with, from, a 'universal bearing', not from petty embattlements of sexual distinction. However, she also said, in no uncertain terms (in a letter of response to New verse, as it happens), that, 'as a poet, I also happen to be a woman', and, if one is alert to her meaning, that makes the crucial difference.

Leaving readers to follow up that clue, should they wish, to Laura Riding's, or Laura (Riding) Jackson's, poems, there is another matter Jan Montefiore should not go unchallenged on. She (quite roughly) shoulders Laura Riding to one side as not English and too much in the vein of Gertrude Stein and the American 'modernist tradition' to haveaplace in her alternative scene to the 'Auden generation In this she follows Samuel Hynes and others, though for different reasons, I suspect. She and Hynes are quite wrong. The circle of friends round Laura Riding, and among whom she had 'influence' (within the limits she spoke of in PN Review a few years ago) by the effect on them of her personal example, was very English, and there is no sign in her collected poems of any marked Americanism. Her first book of poems was published in England, in 1926, so were all her others, culminating in Collected Poems in 1938. Neither her poems nor any other of her work has the slightest connection with Gertrude Stein or her 'tradition', whatever that might be, as a glance at any of the longer poems shows - or any of the shorter ones, come to that. They are pure, personal narrative: voiced, sustained, lyrical development of coherent thought-feeling and feeling-thought. While her poems owe nothing, literarily speaking, to either the American or the English traditions in terms of imitation, style or elected mentors of inspiration, nevertheless, she paid full homage to the English as being custodians of poetry having a personal predilection, through the inherent virtue of the language, towards cautious truthfulness, peculiar to the English personal character in its historical development, something she held to be quite unique, she believed, in the world at large. England, she once said, if I recall her words correctly was her 'adopted speaking-place: I could also personally testify as could others, that Laura (Riding) Jackson's personal speaking voice was very English in its modulation and pronunciation: one had to strain hard to catch any American inflections, as when she said 'sow-wash' (her alternative disparagement-term to 'hogwash').

JanMontefiore's discounting of Laura Riding as outside the scope of her essentially English-focused review may seem a forgiveable offence, but it brings to a sharp point some unpleasant implications which have been gathering over the years. For according to academic textbooks, literary bibliographies, book reviews, biographies, Laura Riding belongs nowhere, discounted in England as American, and in America as English, and thus figures nowhere in what are set out as, respectively the English or American literary traditions, viewed by the first as an interloper and by the second as a traitor. The fact that neither side has actually read her is not admitted. Add to this the misplaced notion that she is bizarrely not a'woman poet', as Jan Montefiore does, and even the women's studies growth-industry not generally too particular in whom they elect to their literary canon, have an excuse for casting her aside (not that she would want to figure as of their number). English and American poetry are tragically the worse for it.


Different Map


Jan Montefiore complains (PN Review) that 'women's poetry of the 1930s doesn't, according to the textbooks, exist at all', when compared with the 'textbook' notoriety achieved by MacSpaunday and a number of other Marxist and surrealist and other poets of the time.

But Ms Montefiore herself manages to fill four and a half pages without so much as a mention of a number of independent male spirits whom the modernist establishment completely overlooked then - as she does now.

Norman Cameron, whose Collected Poems (1957) are now at last once more available, as an Anvil Press hardback (1990); and will appear as a paperback later this year.

Alan Hodge, another Epilogue poet, was included in a slim wartime volume, together with poems by Norman Cameron and Robert Graves, 'published under a single cover for economy and friendship' by Hogarth Press in 1942. Ms Montefiore seems not to have heard of him.

James Reeves, author of two Collected Poems (the most recent published by Heinemann in 1974) and for many years editor of the Heinemann Poetry Bookshelf, also goes unmentioned. Public attention was distracted from the work of these three fine poets by noisier self-advertising others: first Pound, then MacSpaunday, and then Dylan Thomas. Michael Roberts included poems by Reeves in his Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936), but overlooked Cameron. Harold Munro in his Twentieth Century Poetry (1930) and Edward Lucie-Smith in his British Poetry since 1945 (1970) omitted both of them. Ms Montefiore doesn't even mention Graves - whose one-time American partner is avoided - rightly - as belonging to an alien Franco-American tradition.

I have to agree with her last observation, however: that 'the map of British poetry in the thirties may well come to look different from the familiar Auden-centred circle' - provided current establishment views of 'what happened' are intelligently revised.




British reviews sometimes get to me late in Paris, but James Keery's article on the Third Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry has a chauvinist and sexist implication (unintended, I'm sure), which needs comment.

The high male intellect is spread large across the article with its predilection for anything that might complicate our ideas without entailing much of our emotions. Women get such short shrift that I'm just surprised Mr. Keery didn't do one of those feminist numbers on himself and count the column inches allotted. Measuring roughly by ruler: seventy-eight inches overall, eight-nine inches given to women - but six of those inches are really a discussion of a male critic's paper on Denise Riley. As for chauvinism, Mr. Keery didn't get to see the Americans Susan Howe or Stephen Rodefer, and dismisses Alice Notley in a tiny paragraph.

This seems symptomatic of his attitude towards Denise Riley's poetry, which escapes Mr. Keery's still-sectarian tastes. It's as if we were all now agreed on the direction for what the French are calling post-post. Thus 'self-consciousness' in Denise Riley's work can be set down as some publicly evident mistake, along with her 'fatal reflexiveness. 'Reflexiveness in Dante, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, etc … oh well, it wasn't fatal in those poets, you see? Emotional urgency, for which Riley's work is so notable, is put down as arch 'quote feminism unquote:

I really don't want to insult Mr. Keery - not least with misleading labels like sexist - but a touch of reflexiveness might have saved him from an even worse masculine bias: that of characterising awoman poet's development as influenced by her current husband. As her present husband, I'm aware of my own poetic debts to Alice; as aprivileged friend of her first husband, Ted Berrigan, I'm aware both how much their poetic relationship was reciprocal and how'Alice's development was also unique. On the evidence of this article, I do not think, however, that Mr. Keery would naturally remark how much Alice influenced Ted or me, though she clearly did and does.

As for Mr. Keery's dislike of my own present output, I'm quite comfortable with that - no complaints. He has been supportive in the past and Ithank him for that.


Corrections to 'Melville's letter to William Clarke Russell' (Helen Pinkerton) in PNR 96: line 107 (p.31, col.1, line 5) should read: 'In ninety-seven, the era you know well,'
Line 167 (p.31, co1.2, line 6) should read: 'Who goaded, struck impetuously out at Sumpter.'

This item is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.

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